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Four ways to cope with anxiety.

No More Avoiding, Let's Teach Athletes to Control Anxiety

No more avoiding, let's teach athletes to control anxiety. Notice that, under this new approach, anxiety remains a negative factor. Too much is bad, and too little is also detrimental.

So, let's identify signals that inform us when we are out of balance (either too high or too low) and learn emotional self-control techniques to readjust. To be honest, most of our work is carried out in these terms. And truth be told, it hasn't gone too bad. We overcome the drawbacks of avoidance, but new limitations arise.

Athletes who proceed this way manage to perform to the best of their abilities, but rarely do they exceed them. The possibility of exceeding the activation level or falling short hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. Rarely is challenge perceived more than threat. In this case, the psychologist is seen as a provider of emotional self-control techniques.

Tolerating Anxiety

There's another way to face anxiety, tolerating it.

It's about knowing that, sooner or later, it will appear. It's better not to resist its call. It's better not to do anything for it to disappear; as it came, it will go. If you do something for it to go away, you're giving it more importance than it deserves. If you do something for it to go away, then you start having a problem. It's about, despite its presence, continuing to do the same thing you would have done if it hadn't appeared. In other words, only if you bounce back, anxiety becomes a problem for you. If you simply tolerate its presence, without giving it more importance than it has (just another element in the landscape), without holding a grudge, then it becomes an ally for you.

The role of cognitive restructuring characterizes the professional advocating for this approach.

Enjoying Pressure

Now, let's describe the last approach, enjoying pressure. Here, the more pressure, the better. Pressure becomes something that gives meaning to the competition. It's positive because it makes you enjoy feeling it. It's fair because it brings errors to the surface. It tests you. It makes you feel alive. Feeling it and overcoming it give meaning to the effort you made to get here. Those who face anxiety in this way have few ways to achieve such a level of excitement; so, competing ends up becoming almost addictive.

Athletes who compete this way perform above their possibilities in crucial moments of the competition. Rarely does an athlete who enjoys pressure lose a tiebreaker to someone who controls it or simply tolerates it. To function like this, I believe that a minimum of two elements is needed: self-confidence and having been raised in a certain lifestyle (which we will call living competing).

To date, it has been impossible for me to teach an athlete to enjoy pressure. If they already knew, we've learned to do it in more situations. But if they didn't know, they still don't know. At most, someone who avoided anxiety has come to tolerate it occasionally (not regularly). What is simpler is to teach an athlete to control anxiety. And I think it's because of the second condition, living competing. Going to the psychologist for a little while every day is one thing and living 24 hours a day in a certain way is quite another.

The Best Strategy: Values-Based Training

The strategy that has given me the best results when teaching athletes to face pressure in a positive way is what I would call values-based training. Not through instructions (breathe deeply to readjust when making mistakes in haste), nor through goals (maintain concentration), but through values (assuming risk).

We have used any document, testimony, or story related to experiencing pressure to illustrate, comment, and analyse the positive values necessary to enjoy feeling pressure. Then I have reinforced any approach to any of these values. The reinforcement has not been material or affective; rather, it has consisted of showing the athlete the relationship between that value and performance. In this case, the psychologist becomes a belief modifier.

I think sports psychology has stuck to anxiety control. I am a supporter of evolving towards enjoying pressure, passing through tolerance. Otherwise, it will be difficult for our athletes to compete regularly above their level. And what's even worse, it will be very difficult for them to have fun. That we don't know how to do it, that's another matter...

Finally, here are my courses on Vibliotec to expand knowledge areas:

Learning from champions.

Techniques for correcting your athletes.

There is only one Messi. There are many parents of Messi in the world.

Have a great week, Viblioteckers!

Pep Marí